Last Sunday, Pope Francis made official what the world has long perceived: Mother Teresa is a saint. With her unwavering dedication to serving the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa earned the admiration of people from all walks of life, across geographic and religious boundaries. Arguably the most famous Catholic sister of our time, Mother Teresa exemplifies qualities that Conrad N. Hilton admired in Catholic sisters when he charged the Foundation to: “Give aid to… the Sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind.”
Today, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation recognizes the exceptional ways Catholic sisters contribute to human development through investing approximately $17 million per year in programs that support the vitality of congregations of Catholic sisters across the globe. One of the many aims of the Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Strategic Initiative is to bolster the ranks of Catholic sisters in the United States, which have been quietly diminishing as fewer women are entering religious life today than prior to the 1960s.
With the unprecedented opportunities available for women today, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience may appear to be an improbable life choice. Improbable, perhaps, but certainly not impossible. The Foundation recently commissioned a survey, “Perceptions toward Catholic Sisters in the United States,” which reveals that one in four Catholic women has considered becoming a Catholic sister at some point. The survey, which entailed telephone interviews across a broad sample of Catholics and non-Catholics, reveals that the ground is surprisingly fertile for seeds of a calling to consecrated religious life to take root.
Furthermore, the survey reveals that while 72 percent of the general population in the U.S. has positive impressions of Catholic sisters, the majority of Americans don’t know very much about the work and calling of Catholic sisters that benefits all people (including non-Catholics) in areas such as education, healthcare, social services, advocacy, and lives of prayer. When respondents were given more information about Catholic sisters (e.g. that Catholic sisters established best practices in nursing and co-founded major hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic) not only did respondents’ perceptions of Catholic sisters increase, perceptions of the Catholic Church and Catholic priests also increased.
This finding supports the hypothesis of our Catholic Sisters Initiative, that the more people learn about Catholic sisters, the more becoming a Catholic sister will be an attractive life choice that is supported by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In order to further test this hypothesis, the Foundation is launching a public awareness campaign, “Sister to All,” that showcases the lives and ministries of Catholic sisters across the United States.
Rooted in the recent survey results, “Sister to All” seeks to realign somewhat outdated perceptions of Catholic sisters with current realities of the ways they are improving the lives of millions in remarkable and unexpected ways. The campaign features people such as Sister Karen Bland, who is known for her leadership in preventing and ending homelessness, and Sister Joanne Belloli, a clinical social worker who specializes in mental health and the treatment of substance use disorders. The Foundation hopes that “Sister to All” and “Perceptions toward Catholic Sisters in the United States” will be valuable resources that augment the work of our grantee partners as we labor together to encourage women to consider a life that is vastly counter-cultural and yet also highly satisfying.
So, this fall, as the world celebrates the life of one sister, Mother Teresa, may we also celebrate the lives of all Catholic sisters who exhibit the same selflessness and unwavering commitment. May their care for the marginalized and their steadfast devotion continue to inspire the general public, as well as motivate those who have a special calling to join their ranks today.